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Homosexuality or holiness? Student response mixed to Kim Zember’s discussion of homosexuality

By Elizabeth Van Pilsum, Arts and Culture Editor

Originally Published October 18, 2023

Can one be gay and still with God? This question was at the forefront of a speaker talk hosted by Campus Ministry in the Performing Arts Center (PAC) on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. The speaker was Kim Zember, a Catholic woman who lived in what she called “the homosexual lifestyle.” Zember shared her experiences with Catholicism, and how she changed her mind about said “lifestyle.” This talk resulted in mixed reactions from students across campus and contributed to the disagreements students have been having for years about the attitude Saint Vincent College (SVC) has demonstrated to the LGBTQ community.

Campus Ministry invited speaker Kim Zember to share her testimony on homosexuality. (SOURCE: CAMPUS MINISTRY INSTAGRAM)

In her talk, Zember explained how, as a child, she associated homosexuality with hell. She prayed that her attraction to women would go away, tried to repress it, but she still experienced the attraction.

She dated women and lived in “the lifestyle” for years in hopes that no longer being closeted would remove the fearfulness, while she continued attending church. She described the experience as “trying to hold two polar opposite things together” and claimed she knew the way she was living “was not what God had for me”, ultimately, “surrendering to God”.

Zember said that someone could “not be in the lifestyle and still be so far from God,” stressing that all sins are sin. “The opposite of homosexuality is holiness. The opposite of any sin is holiness,” she said.

Zember cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which labels, Zember stated, same-sex attraction as disordered desire and says that people with same-sex attraction must be treated with respect. She says that although she struggles with the ‘disordered desire’ teaching, she feels it is not hateful and that the Catechism calls the desire disordered, not the person. Additionally, she said that while many in the church have been hateful towards gay people, the church “does not hate gay people”.

The speaker’s hour-long testimony was followed by an hour of audience questions. Some students were hurt by Zember’s claims of homosexuality being disordered and by the fact that Campus Ministry brought her to campus. A senior student, who wishes to remain anonymous, was one of the students who objected to her coming to campus.

“I was following her argument and story until towards the end of her lecture segment when it seemed to go off the rails a bit,” the anonymous student said. “There were a lot of contradictions, in her argument and examples. She seems to have a lot of religious trauma and guilt surrounding her sexuality based on what she said in the beginning of her lecture.”

One junior student, who wishes to remain anonymous, commended Zember for her transparency, but was upset with the speaker’s message. The student had already had a poor experience with people in Campus Ministry and felt that by bringing Zember to campus, Campus Ministry was condoning homophobia the student has faced before.

“Campus Ministry, your true colors have shown,” the anonymous student said. “I have only grown closer to God by coming out, but I feel as if this was the nail in the coffin for my time here.”

They also felt hurt by SVC for allowing this talk to occur. They felt the talk did not create “an inclusive and affirming environment” and that the speaker was close-minded.

“It's crucial to remember that interpretations of religious teachings can vary widely, and there are many within the LGBTQ community who have found ways to reconcile their identities with their faith. I have,” the anonymous student said.

The anonymous student also felt as if LGBTQ students would leave the talk feeling they are a disorder.

Other students felt the talk was less promoting and condoning hatred, and more an open conversation. One junior student, who wishes to remain anonymous, thought Zember’s talk promoted dialogue on an important issue from the experiences of a non-theologian.

“She wasn’t an expert, she was just here to tell us her story, and she did that. It was good, it wasn’t inflammatory, she was very calm, and she had a kind of stillness.”

The student recognized that the talk discussed a divisive subject but felt the general response to the talk was unjustly centered on the Church’s teachings instead of Zember’s experiences.

“I think people need to go with a different mindset that isn’t ‘somebody’s coming here to fight us’. It’s not somebody trying to tell them they need to change their life, it’s somebody saying, ‘I’ve been impacted by this.’”

Campus Ministry's goal in hosting this talk was to promote civil conversation on a subject they felt most Catholics have a reputation for avoiding. One Campus Ministry staff member said this talk was aimed at shedding light on Catholic teachings as well as starting a discourse for the benefit of the community.

“We did not enter into this talk with any specific intention of how this event would go, instead we sought to conform to the needs of the community in being heard,” the staff member said.

In response to upset campus community members, the staff member explained that Campus Ministry would like for concerns regarding the speaker to be explained to their staff.

“We are always open to having conversation and we want everyone on campus to know that we will never turn anyone away, nor will we condemn anyone,” the staff member said. “We hope that any and all who are having negative feelings as an outcome of this event will share with the Campus Ministry staff so that we can learn how to best support them.”

Campus Ministry hopes to continue to explore other subjects in the future, although there are no more plans to discuss the subject of sexuality.

While Campus Ministry says they intended to start civil conversation on campus, campus community members are still debating whether it was received that way.

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